When aliens come to Earth to investigate life here, they don’t simply beam up a specimen and start probing. (And they’re also, by the way, not disproportionately interested in the anus.) Only a novice prober would do a simple beam-and-probe, and would surely get a quick rap on a proboscis from the instructor. The problem with abducting an animal of interest, all by itself, is that you can’t understand an animal without an appreciation of the environment the animal inhabits.
Aliens probing one of those mysterious humans
These alien probers, you see, have a motto, and it roughly translates as: “My eye is not a squirt gun even though it shoots blood when in zero gravity.” It emanates from the experiences of their first alien astronauts who, upon experiencing zero gravity for the first time, were surprised to find their eyes shooting blood on everything they looked upon. Live video of that debacle set back their space program for a decade, as you can imagine, but to the alien evolutionary biologists it was a great illustration of how animals are packed with quirks, or crazy things they do in unnatural circumstances. Their alien eyes did not evolve for zero gravity, because zero gravity situations just never came up (unless in free fall from, say, a high cliff, in which case blood-squirting-eyes only serve to make the stain on the ground more memorable).
What an experienced alien prober does is gather as much information about the animal’s habitat as possible. In fact, they beam up entire habitats so that they can study the animal in its home at their leisure. Alien Probe School graduates are consummate ecologists, understanding that organisms evolved to do stuff with their complex mechanisms, but that if you drop an organism into an environment for which it did not evolve, it will often do other stuff, and usually quite unsophisticated stuff. For example, had their alien eyes actually been selected to become eye squirt guns in zero gravity, they would surely have become much better than they are, e.g., not so pulsatile, and less excruciatingly painful.
By following their alien principles of good probing, they’ll have abducted what they need in order to some day, and with great effort, have a complete knowledge of the organism, from its genome to its “phenome.” The phenome is the set of things the animal can do, implemented ultimately via the genome and the way it acts within the evolutionary habitat. For example, your cell phone’s genome is the electronic circuitry (or perhaps the engineer’s drawings for the circuitry), whereas its phenome is the list of things it can do, often enumerated in the user’s manual, exactly the manual that is missing for the Earth organisms the alien probers want to unravel.
But something unexpected happened when they followed these wise principles on humans, abducting an entire primitive tribe of humans and the mountain they lived on. They already had abducted earlier hominids who had no language or music, and were interested to see what was new about these speaking and singing humans. To their surprise, the aliens could discern no difference between the non-speaking, non-musical hominids and the speaking and singing humans.
Their biology was indistinguishable, they concluded.
They were the same animal. Could the difference be due to a difference in habitat? No, they concluded, the earlier and newly abducted mountains appear to have no relevant differences. Same animal, same habitat, and yet the modern humans are a giant leap beyond, or at least distinct from, the more ancient Homo sapiens. They scratched their antennae. Why, the aliens wondered, did the modern humans behave so fundamentally different? Why did they have language and music? Why did the modern humans seem like something fundamentally different from the great apes, whereas the non-linguistic non-musical humans seemed to fit more within the apes, namely as a very bright great ape.
How could two identical creatures in identical habitats end up so different in sophistication that it seemed natural to deem them different species?
The modern humans clearly must have have *learned* language and music. But that only seemed to worsen the dilemma for the probers. How can you teach an animal a lesson so powerful that it practically becomes another species? Speech and music comprehension, the aliens knew, are astoundingly complex, complex in the way natural selection creates the complex. These modern humans, the aliens noted, were competent at language and music in the highly adapted way animals evolve to be capable at things. But from their alien experiences as ecologists, they knew that if an animal is not designed to accommodate that level of complex processing, then you can’t just force feed it. You can’t teach a deer to catch and eat mice. No course will get your dog to climb trees like a monkey. And you can’t train a human to comprehend fax machine sounds. You simply cannot teach old hominids new tricks worthy of natural selection. The human brain is not such a rich general purpose learning apparatus that it can learn tasks as richly complex as language and music. Yet there they were, the modern humans with brains highly honed for speech and music. The alien probers were stumped.
They reasoned: The humans don’t have language or music innately in the head. And it doesn’t come from their habitat. And they also don’t simply learn something that complicated. There must be selection of some kind underlying the human capability to do language and music, but what kind of selection could it be if it is neither natural selection nor learning?
One of the alien probers wondered whether there *might* be design, or selection, underlying the difference between modern humans and their non-linguistic and non-musical ancestors – not natural selection and not learning, but cultural selection. This is a selection process that selects not on biology, but on human artifacts that are used by biology. The human artifacts are animal-like, in the sense that they themselves have evolved over time, under selection pressure. These artifact-creatures (in the realm of “memes”), like naturally selected biological creatures, can be highly complex, with all the hallmarks of an engineering masterpiece.
“Aha!” the alien prober exclaimed. The modern humans are not merely learning language and music, they’re being raised in an environment with symbionts. Language and music are technological masterpieces that evolved to live with non-linguistic hominids and transform them into something beyond their biology. What makes these modern humans no longer the non-linguistic Homo sapiens apes they biologically are is not on the inside, and not in the ancestral environment. It is due to a novel variety of evolving entity the humans have been evolving with. Language and music are evolved organism-like artifacts that are symbiotic with these human apes. And like any symbiont, these artifact symbionts have evolved to possess shapes that fit the biology, namely our brains. As a metaphor with symbionts, these aliens could then begin digesting what we modern humans are.
What are we, then, in the eyes of alien probers? We are our biology, from the genes on up. But we are more than that, indicated by the fact that the probers don’t abduct just a human, but entire human habitats. We are our biology within its appropriate habitat. But that’s true about all animals on Earth. The special thing the aliens had to grapple with when they started probing humans was that biology and habitat are not enough. They needed to abduct the cultural artifact symbionts that were co-evolving with us. That’s not something any other animal can lay claim to. The pieces of what we are can be found in our wet biology, the habitat, but also in the artifactual symbionts we have been co-evolving with.
Our language, music and other highly culturally evolved technologies are, like our genes and our habitat, deeply part of the modern human recipe. The human code is not just the genome, and not just the genome and habitat. The human code is now found in the structures of language and other cultural artifacts.
Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).
This first appeared on January 26, 2010, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.
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